Omar | Verso.ink

Omar

By Genevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

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Catherine Celeste Gamoth, daughter of the Beast-Tamer King, stared up at the wings with amazement. They were shaped like the wings of a bat, but were large enough to dwarf the thirteen year old princess in size, and covered in thick, blood red skin, which was still firm and tight despite having hung there, on the wall behind her father’s throne, for weeks now.

Catherine was always amazed to see the wings, so terrible and great. Her father said people would look at them and see his own power, but she only thought of the beast when she saw them. The demon that had terrorized the kingdom for months before it was captured and dragged to the king’s throne room. Catherine had only caught a glimpse of the strange, blood-colored man before it was dragged out of her sight, and she hadn’t followed. She was too afraid of the beast to want to see it.

“Cath,” Theo complained, tugging on his big sister’s draping sleeve. “Cath, I wanna go eat.”

Catherine kept staring at the wings.

“Caaaath!”

“Aren’t you scared, Theo?” Catherine asked him, still not turning to look at her little brother. “That thing is still in the palace. What if it escapes?” It could come and tear them all apart. She was sure it would come and try to take its wings back, if it could. And it would probably kill them all on its way, in revenge.

The little boy looked up at the wings, brushing his blond bangs back from his face so he could see them better. He looked very small next to the great wings. “Nah. I’m not scared of monsters anymore, Cath! It’s just a monster. Papa has lots of monsters! When I’m grown up, I’ll tame monsters too!”

Catherine swallowed, looking up at the wings again for a last look before she turned to lead her brother down to the kitchens. “Demons aren’t like tigers and bears, Theo,” she said. “It looks like a man. It must be smarter than an animal.”

“I bet it's not hungerier though!” Theo laughed, tugging on her arm to make her hurry. “Don’t be scared, Cath! Papa won’t let the monster hurt us! Let’s go eat some food! Some tarts! Some breads!”

***

Catherine couldn’t help her interest in the demon, despite her efforts to hide from it in her studies and her play. All her friends whispered about the monster, caged in the menagerie along with the wild animals the king tamed. All the adults talked about the many wealthy visitors to the city who paid to come in and see the beast from Hell. All the scholars and priests argued whether or not the palace would be cursed for housing such a fiend. Some said it was a great thing to hold it captive, others that God would look upon their letting it live with great anger.

Whenever it was spoken of, Catherine fell silent, staring at her book or her needlework, or at her pony’s neck. She remembered the one look she had at the thing. It had been heavily bound, and hadn’t resisted the soldiers who shoved it through the hall. For a moment it had glanced at the young princess, and she saw yellow, slit eyes, like a snake, in its crimson face. Then a soldier grabbed its wing, which was tied to the other to keep them closed, and the beast had bared sharp teeth at him, lashing out at last, in rage. And then Catherine had run away, back down the halls he had come from. She didn’t want to see the monster that looked almost like a man. Even as weeks and months passed by, and her friends all slipped in the look at it, Catherine would not.

She was horrified, six months after the beast arrived, to hear her little brother’s request of her.

“I wanna show it to you!” he pleaded, jumping up and down with excitement. Catherine stared at him over her book. “Please? You haven’t looked at it yet! It’s so cool!” the child begged eagerly.

“No.”

“Pleeeeeease?”

“No!” Catherine slammed her book closed. “Theo, it’s a devil! I don’t want to look at it! Father shouldn’t let it stay. My teachers all say we’re going to be cursed.”

Its inhuman eyes, so terrible to behold, had been so frightened. And then, so suddenly, furious.

“Papa tamed it! It can’t get us! And there are guards. Please Cath! Please?”

“I said no.” She turned away. “Why do you even care? You’ve seen it half a dozen times, with Father.”

Theo rocked back on his heels. “Yeeeah. But he’s too busy now. He doesn't wanna go look at the demon with me anymore.”

“I can’t replace Father. Go get one of your teachers to help you.”

“But I want you to do it!” He grabbed her book, ignoring her protest, and held tight to it in her lap. “I’m the crown prince, so you have to do what I say! Go see the monster with me! I wanna go see it!”

Catherine blinked at her brother. “You’re nine, Theo. I don’t have to do what you say.”

“Old, old men have to listen to papa! And he’s not so old yet!”

“Father,” his sister informed him. “Is the king. You’re not yet.”

“If you go with me, I’ll give you my desert!”

“I can get my own.”

The child let go of the book and sat down sulkily on the ground. “It’s not fair. You never even saw it yet. You don’t ever be nice to me.”

Catherine frowned at him and opened her book, but she couldn’t focus on it.

“You always look at the wings!” Theo continued to complain. “And they’re not even as cool! They don’t move!”

The wings couldn’t look back at her. The wings didn’t look like a person.

“You’re a mean sister!”

Catherine slammed the book again and covered her eyes with one hand. She didn’t want to think about the thing. It was all anyone talked about now, though, and Theo was too stubborn to just go away. Maybe… maybe if she saw it again, and saw it a little longer, it would seem properly like an animal. It’s yellow eyes might stop haunting her every time someone mentioned it.

“Fine,” she decided. “I’ll take you to see it tomorrow. Now leave me alone.”

***

Catherine lay in bed. She couldn’t sleep. The thin moon’s crescent was high in the sky, but the princess continued to toss and turn hour after hour.

She’d promised to go see it in the morning. In the moment that thought had been a hopeful one: to free her from the terror she felt every time she heard the demon brought up. But now it was a nightmare she was going to wake up to. The face, human but for the color, filled her mind, and in memory’s eye she watched the snake eyes open and meet her human ones, human and inhuman at once, frightened and small, and then suddenly ferocious when its wing was touched. The wings. And then her father had had them torn off. She’d seen the servants cleaning blood off the throne room floor later: it must have been done immediately. The beast would hate them. It would kill them, if it had the chance. And it had seen her, dressed finely, wearing a crown. It must know who she was. It was going to tear her apart and eat her with its cruel fangs. If it saw her it would fly into a rage. It might escape. She would die.

And Theo would die too. Catherine huddled into her thick, warm blankets, trying to keep the thoughts out, but they kept coming. Theo would be with her, and he would die too, because she was too weak to say no to him. She couldn’t do it. But she had promised. And she was being silly. A foolish, weak, little girl.

Too weak to fight if the thing attacked them.

Finally, she got out of bed and got dressed as well as she could without calling for her maid. She did not put on her crown. It was still the dead of night, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t wait longer: she had to go now. She didn’t want to, but if she was right and it grew angry when it saw her, she had to be there alone first. Besides, now that she had decided to go, she felt she would burst if she didn’t go and do it. She grabbed a cloak and took the candle her maid had left for her on the desk. She was too old to need light while she slept, but since the monster had come, she had asked for it anyway. The candle was a stub, but it still burned, so she carried it with her, down the halls, down the steps, her shoes pattered against stone. She reached the doors to the palace, and the soldiers there opened them for her.

“Shouldn’t your highness be asleep?” one of them asked curiously, yawning as she stepped past him.

“Yes,” she said. “Good night, Sir.” And she left them there, making her way through the grass and towards the menagerie, which stood in the palace grounds. It was a tall, strong building, and Catherine knew that the inside was filled with cages large and small for every creature her father had bought or captured over the years. Tigers and wolves and birds and great boars and foreign, spotted animals, and everything else his daughter could imagine. And now, one demon.

Catherine swallowed thickly, thinking about it, and pushed herself to walk to the door. There were soldiers there too, and they were laughing together until they noticed the little princess perring up at them.

“Your highness! What’re you doing here, in the middle of the night like this?” one of them asked, kneeling to meet her eye. “You don’t want the demon to get you, do you? You’d best go back to sleep.”

Catherine shivered. “It-- it’s not in a cage?” she asked in a small voice. Surely this soldier didn’t know it had seen her. How did he know it would get her?

“Of course it is,” another soldier scolded. “Thomas, get up and leave her highness alone. It’s not your business where she goes.”

The soldier stood up, chuckling. “Come on, you know demons get stronger at night! Who says that cage will hold strong? Maybe--”

The other soldier lightly smacked Thomas’s head. “Shut up and open the door for her.” He turned to look at Catherine, who was trembling. It got stronger at night? She wouldn't have come if she’d known. She should run away now. She shouldn’t come in the morning, either-- she would break her word to Theo and stay in bed all day and never, never see the creature again.

“Hey, the cages are strong, your highness,” the soldier was saying to her. “Nothing in there can hurt you. You want to go in?” He paused looking at Catherine’s shaking form. “Thomas look, you’ve scared her half to death.”

“Well, that’s what she gets for wandering around at night. Kids oughta be asleep at this hour, you know that.”

Thomas ducked as the other soldier tried to hit him again. “That’s not our business,” the guard snapped. “Go take her in.”

“Huh? Why me?” Thomas whined. But Catherine let out a breath with relief. She would have a guard by her side. She was safer that way. Almost like going with her father.

The soldiers bickered for another moment, but finally the one called Thomas opened the door and bowed for Catherine to step in ahead of him, rolling his eyes and muttering about the hour of night again.

She scurried in past him. Her candle cast long shadows across the cages, and the animals in them stirred, their bony bodies all curled up as they slept. She stepped past the tiger and three wolves, and past a tall creature with spots. Her eyes darted around, looking for a new cage. For a monster curled up like the other beasts.

“Look’n for the monster?” Thomas asked in a spooky voice. Catherine shot him a glare and he stifled a laugh. “All right, no need to look at me like that. I heard you hadn’t been in since it got here, so I just figured.” He pointed away from the cages, towards a door hidden in the shadows. “It’s in there. You sure you wanna go in now, though? Seems like you’d be better waiting for daylight.”

She couldn’t wait. She walked to the door and fumbled with the handle until Thomas took the candle from her and pulled out a set of keys. After a moment, the door swung open and Thomas stepped inside, taking the light with him. Catherine stumbled after him, nearly tripping on her cloak in her hurry. Far worse than to see the beast was to be left alone near it without light.

There was a chill in the room. A cage was placed at the far end, large enough to hold a man, but not much larger. When Thomas held the candle up, Catherine could see a shape in the cage. It raised an arm to block the light from its eyes.

It was awake. Catherine stood, paralized. Numb. She couldn’t breathe. It was looking at her, a snarl on its lips. A man, but not a man. It looked even more that way without the wings on its back, and with the bandages wrapped around its chest. Black hair, streaked with dark blue, fell in its face and made it hard to see the yellow eyes. Scars ran up and down its arms.

“Hey, monster,” Thomas chuckled, kicking the cage. The demon flinched back, baring his teeth at the guard. “The little princess came all the way over to see you. Why don’t you give her some kind of show, huh?”

Catherine opened her mouth to tell the guard to stop, but cut off before she started as the monster jerked around to look at her.

“Princess?” it spoke in a ragged voice, as though it had not had enough water in a long time. Catherine stared at it in horror, waiting for it to remember. To be angry.

Instead, it bowed its head in deference, its snarl disappearing. Thomas seemed as startled by this action as Catherine was. She hadn’t even known it could speak. Why wasn’t it angry? Her father had trapped it, torn it apart… was this a trick?

She stepped closer, ignoring Thomas’s protest that she should keep her distance. The creature watched her with a grimace, but it did not look hostile or aggressive. It looked worried. “Hello,” Catherine said without thinking, then she flushed. It was still a monster. It was strange, but it didn’t care, really.

It swallowed and drew back a little, nodding but not speaking again. Catherine stopped a few feet from the cage. It was mesmerizingly horrible to look at. Clawed hands rested in its lap, and she could see its sharp, doglike teeth glittering in the candlelight as it opened its mouth, then closed it. It was distinctly male, and so nearly human it hurt. But mahogany horns curved from its head, and snake eyes watched the princess. That felt right to the princess, in a way. A demon ought to be almost human, but not quite. She wondered if it had ever been a person, or if it had been first created a monster.

“I saw you,” the beast whispered, and Catherine jerked back. It did remember her! It was angry after all. It would reach out and grab her with its claws… but it wasn’t moving. It was still staring at her. “I saw you,” it said again. “When I… first came.”

Its voice was painful to hear. Catherine realized suddenly that it’s skinny, bony form might not have always been so. “Are you all right?” she asked before she could stop herself. The monster’s eyes widened, and she stepped back, her face hot with embarrassment and fear. “You… you sound thirsty,” she fumbled.

“Princess, it’s a demon,” Thomas sighed behind her. “It’s just trying to get your sympathy.”

“Yes,” the demon said. Catherine blinked at it. It was admitting to trying to trick her? No. It’s gaze was on the floor of its cage, and it was swallowing hard with thirst. Its shoulders twitched and shivered, and it didn't look back up. “Thank you,” it said.

Now she couldn’t stop seeing its ribs, showing under the tight bandages, and its thin arms and shivering form. Catherine swallowed hard and turned to her guard, who was scowling at the beast.

“Get him water,” she said. Thomas started.

“Princess! It’s… I shouldn’t leave you alone…”

She shook her head. He was probably right. But she didn’t think the monster was strong enough to break out of its cage and get her, even at night. “Go get it water,” she ordered again. “I’ll wait here.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow at her and turned to look at the beast again. Then he shook his head and set the candle down with a shrug, strolling out despite the dark outside the room. He left the door open, but it didn’t stop the chilling feeling of being all alone with a creature like that. The monster was staring at Catherine, its mouth open. When she turned back to him, it turned away, swallowing hard.

“Thank you,” it said again. “I… I didn’t think… you were going to come.”

The princess hesitated. “My… my friends came. Lots of people come.”

“I know.” It scowled at the floor of the cage, but it didn’t seem anything but tired. “But you didn’t.”

“Did you want me to?”

It looked up. “No. I just wondered. You’re… a princess. You’re related to that king?”

Catherine nodded.

The monster took a scratchy breath. “How… how’re you related to him?”

The princess studied the creature. “Why?” Shouldn’t it hate her as much if she was its captor’s niece as his daughter?

“My sister,” the creature explained softly. “She’s a princess now. You can’t always choose such things, I know.” It looked up. “You’re… his wife?”

Catherine colored. “I’m a child!”

It cocked its head. “...then no?”

The princess shook her head. It had a sister? Was it lying? Surely demons couldn’t have families. It must be trying to trick her.

Unless demon was the wrong name for it. Animals sometimes had families that looked out for each other. Perhaps it was a monster, but not a devil.

Thomas returned and shoved a cup through the bars of the cage, ignoring about half the water spilling in his rush to yank his hand out again. The monster hesitated only a moment, glancing at the guard’s disgusted expression, before grabbing the cup and downing its contents. It stared into the empty cup for a long moment.

“Do you have a name?” Catherine asked. The beast glanced up at her.

“Omar,” he said. His voice sounded very slightly better. “Omar… yes.” He turned away. Catherine frowned at him.

“What are you?” she asked. Thomas scoffed behind her, but the monster faced her again.

“What do you think?” he asked her, his expression soft and serious. Catherine hesitated.

“My brother wants me to bring him to see you. That’s why I came,” she said. “So I… so I wouldn’t be so afraid when I bring him.” She didn’t know why that was the answer, but it was. She didn’t know what he was. But she realized she wasn’t so afraid of him now. He wasn’t as terrible as she had expected.

Then again, he had gone from quiet to angry in a moment when she first saw him.

He watched her for a moment. Then turned away. “My people are called Meiren,” he said. “But I’m not one of them anymore. I suppose I’m not anything.”

Not one of them anymore? Catherine opened her mouth to ask what he meant, but Thomas cleared his throat. “Princess, my shift’ll change soon. I have to go, and if I just leave you in here…”

Catherine nodded to him. She didn’t want to leave, but she wouldn’t get him into trouble like that. “Goodbye, Omar,” she said. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

The monster shivered, nodding with a grim expression, and Catherine felt a stab of guilt for leaving him here. She looked around for some way to make up for it, and pulled her cloak off, stepping up closer to the cage.

“Here.” She pushed the cloak through the bars, shivering in the room’s chill without it. “Good night.” And she fled after Thomas before Omar could answer her.

***

Catherine was ill the next morning. Theo complained loudly by her bedside until the servants drove him away, but they would have nothing to do with the idea of the princess getting up to visit a demon in such a state.

So Catherine was left alone, sitting on the edge of her bed, looking out her little window to the gardens. She couldn’t see the menagerie from her room. Had Omar cursed her? She was probably foolish for having gone so near him, alone, in the night when demons were strong. But it seemed an awfully petty curse. Despite her maid’s doting, she was fairly sure she was only a little chilled from being out all night. She’d vomited once, but now she felt nearly well again. Surely a devil would have done something far worse to her, if he had the chance.

The chattering of the maids grew quiet around noon, and Catherine supposed they must have gone to eat something, or had grown bored of waiting when she continually told them she needed nothing. She was relieved to think they were gone. She didn’t want to stay still anymore, her legs as restless as her thoughts. Slipping out her door, the princess saw a single old maid, sitting in a wooden chair. She nearly gave up then and returned to her room before realizing the maid was asleep. Soft snores filled the room, masking the princess’s quiet footsteps as she tiptoed past her last keeper and towards a few minutes of freedom. Of course, the others would come back later; she would have to be back by then. But she could enjoy her time now, letting her feet wander with her thoughts.

Because she had been declared ill, there were no appointments and plans, no lessons she had to attend. No one stopped her from her walk, knowing she had a right to go where she pleased, and none of her teachers or personal maids were about to order her to work or rest. She could do as she liked.

For some reason, without thinking about it, Catherine Celeste Gamoth found that doing as she liked meant walking into her father’s throne room. The court wasn’t there now. They must be attending some event or festival elsewhere, today. But the wings were still there, bright in the noontime light that fell on them through wide windows. Catherine had often wandered in in the past months, just to stare at the wings. They were against the wall, but positioned so that from the front it looked as though they were growing out of the throne itself. A perfect symbol of the Beast Tamer King, known for the creatures he had captured and put on display. Before they had always seemed fearful, but now, suddenly, Catherine found them strangely pathetic. A part of a creature torn away and set up like it meant something without the whole, just hanging limply on the wall. Somehow it was supposed to mean power. But Omar wasn’t powerful because of his wings-- not powerful enough to escape before they could be ripped away.

Perhaps she ought to go see him again. It was strange how afraid she had been of that before, but now it felt almost natural that she should go to him again. She had told him she would, after all. She should make sure he was getting water. She could imagine his strange, yellow eyes looking at her, but they didn’t look terrible anymore, in her mind. Not very, at least. Just strange.

“Princess!” A maid dashed into the room, gasping frantically for air and flinging her arms around the princess’s stiff form. “Naia! Gurtrude! I found her!” she shouted towards the door. “Princess, we’ve been looking all over for you!”

“Were you?” Catherine asked unhappily. “I’m fine, Quartney. I just wanted to come look at the monster wings.”

The maid cast a distressed look at the scarlet skin, stretched between large bones. “Oh dear, dear, you’re not well. Come, oh, here are the girls. Let’s go back to bed now, sweet highness.”

The other maids had followed Quartney’s cry, and now were all chirping over the princess like birds around a helpless chick. Catherine gave the sad wings a last look and let the women usher her away, back to her lonely room in the tower.

It took the rest of the day to convince the maids that Catherine was fine, and by that time it was time that they all tucked her into bed. She dreamed that she stood in the menagerie, not as a guest, but standing behind the bars of a golden cage. Her dress was torn and dirty, and her hair was dirty and uncombed, but she didn’t ask to be let out. She knew she belonged in the cage. Because great, crimson wings were growing from her shoulders, and hung limply at her side. She was a monster. So she had to stay where she was. Even when her father strode up to the cage with a whip, all her maids twittering around him, she didn’t try to stop them. The maids were all pleading with the king, telling him to be gentle and kind, saying that if he would only whip her a little, the wings would surely come off on their own.

The king raised the whip, and Catherine closed her eyes.

She woke in a cold sweat, and had to be bathed immediately by her maids, who all gossiped and worried over her, wondering if she was well enough to return to her studies. Her insistence that she was fine went completely ignored.

In the end, they agreed to let her leave her room when the oldest maid noted that her studies would suffer and people would talk, if she studied only when she felt entirely well. So Princess Catherine Celeste Gamoth was sent to her teachers with the assurance that all her servants had her best interest in mind.

She studied all morning, and stitched embroidery with her maids all afternoon. Theo came to her in the evening, but the princess could not possibly be spared from her dancing lessons. The next day she was needed for a fitting. The next she had extra studies that carried into the evening.

“But you’ll take me to see it tomorrow?” Theo pleaded, clinging to her skirts as she stood to fetch another book for reference.

“I don’t know, Theo. I’ve been really busy.”

“But you promised you would! Days and days and days ago! You have to not break promises to the future king, Catherine!”

She took her seat again, sweeping her brother off of her skirts. To be honest, she had looked for time to keep her promise, but was starting to give up on the idea happening any time soon. Her maids hadn’t even let her into the throne room to see Omar’s wings, keeping her busy with small tasks and visits with her friends in the gardens whenever she had a pause in her work.

“Caaaath,” Theo cried, collapsing onto the floor as though his sister’s refusal had cast him a physical blow. “You proooomised!”

She glared at her book, trying not to be angry with Theo. “I’ll take you to see him when I have time,” she snapped. “Go play somewhere else.”

The boy peered up at her. “Can I play in here?”

She waved a dismissive hand, burying herself further into her book. She could hear her maids twittering in the other room, waiting in case she tried to leave. Like guards, except that Catherine could probably get away from all of them if she wasn’t raised to obey like a good girl.

Night fell before Catherine’s work was completed, and her brother’s maids arrived to usher the child off to bed. Catherine stayed put, reading on about the history of the continent, told in the words of a man she had never met and would never know. She turned the pages, strangely determined to keep reading despite her tired mind. Her maids came in to get her, but she firmly sent them out, promising to just read one more chapter before she retired. But she read on and on, until her head was heavy and her eyes burned. She didn’t even understand the words she read, anymore. The candle was low. And then she woke, her head on the desk.

She must have fallen asleep in the middle of the book. Catherine yawned, stretching and glancing at the window. There was no moon in the sky, but stars glittered brightly in the darkness. She had better go to her bed to finish the night.

Feeling very silly for her passionate reading, Catherine tidied her desk and closed the shutters on the window. They were at ground level here, and she could just make out the great form of her father’s menagerie in the distance. She let out a sigh as she turned away from it. She would go when there was time, she reminded herself. She ought to focus on her work, anyhow. The crimson man in a cage wasn’t truly her concern. She’d gone for months without seeing him before.

But that was before he’d spoken to her, and she’d told him she would return the next day. Her broken promise was to both Theo and Omar.

“-Worried about her, Naia.”

“We all are, dear. She’s grown half obsessed with the thing: always trying to go stare at its wings. Hugha, I shudder just to think of it. No girl should have to even think of such terrible things.”

Catherine paused as she noticed the voices. She’d assumed her maids were asleep, but their quiet voices were whispering outside the door as she moved to open it.

“It’s to be expected of the crown prince, of course, with all the time he spends with his father.”

“Yes, but I don’t see why it ought to rub off on our charming little girl. She was growing up so well before that creature was brought here.”

“Girls, you’re overreacting,” a tired voice cautioned. “Everyone has their poor moments. As long as we keep her busy, she’ll get over her obsession soon enough. And even if she doesn’t, the creature will die before she has the chance to go back. My husband caught a glimpse of its wounds-- I would be very much surprised if it lasts into next year, by what he says.”

Catherine clapped a hand over her mouth as her maids all agreed that keeping her busy was just the way to cure her fixation. Of course, she’d known already they were trying to distract her from Omar-- they’d never really liked her even looking at his wings. But hearing them say so still stung.

Not as badly as hearing that Omar was dying. So thin, so thirsty, with bandages still wrapped around his chest six months after losing his wings; she should have known. Should have thought. He needed her help. She had to see him, now. But her maids would never let her get to him. She dashed back to the window and threw it open, crawling awkwardly through-- it was a tight fit, but she managed it in a few moments. And then she was outside, shivering in a night-mist. She closed the shutters behind herself as well as she could, thinking desperately. She would go get food. The servants in the kitchen would be asleep: she wouldn’t be noticed there. She took off running as quietly as she could, already imagining her maids’ shrill cries of horror as they found her missing.

The guards were surprised to see the princess at the menagerie gate yet again, all alone and in the night, but they let her in and gave her a lantern. She hadn’t remembered a candle this time.

“You need an escort, highness?” one of them asked, but she shook her head, asking only for the key to Omar’s room. The soldiers were skeptical, but obeyed, and Catherine hurried in on her own. She fumbled to unlock the door and push it aside, cringing at it’s loud clang as it swung wide and hit the wall. In his cage, Omar jerked up at the sound. His yellow eyes reflected in the lantern light, glowing in the darkness.

“...Princess?” he asked softly.

“I came back,” Catherine gasped. And suddenly she felt very silly. Omar stared at her with surprise and confusion: he hadn’t been waiting for her. She was only a little girl: if he was dying, she couldn’t really help him. Her maids would be so very cross with her, and now her head would hurt all tomorrow and she might get sick again from the cold. She was shivering like anything, without a cloak or a shawl.

The monster came closer to the bars of the cage, his yellow eyes glowing brighter as he looked directly at the princess. He didn’t speak, and his expression was wary now, but he did not seem displeased, at least. One claw gripped the bar of his cage.

“You came back,” he finally said, echoing her own words. Catherine sniffed and stepped forwards. She was here: she might as well give him what she brought. She knelt down to open her basket and drew out the bread and fruit she’d grabbed. There was cheese too, and some meat left over from the king’s supper. She fumbled to hand them through the bars to the creature inside, flushed with embarrassment for having done so much just because of overhearing gossip. Omar’s eyes widened at the sight of the food, and he accepted it from her. She was careful not to touch his claws directly as she passed the food to him. He might look almost a man, but those claws were still more beast than human.

“Thank you,” Omar said, when Catherine finally drew away from him, her basket empty. He looked down at the small pile of food in his cage.

“I was afraid they wouldn’t feed you,” Catherine explained as she stood up. “I know it’s silly. You must be eating… I’m sorry for waking you up.”

Omar looked up sharply. “No. You… thank you.” He shivered and Catherine realized he no longer had her cloak. The guards must have taken it away. Catherine felt a burst of irritation at them.

“I should go,” she said, reminding herself more than addressing the creature. She would be missed. She’d done all she could, hadn’t she?

Omar nodded. He shivered again and turned away, his gaze falling on the pile of food again, but he didn’t touch it. Catherine paused.

“Aren’t you hungry?”

He hesitated. “Yes. I…” he looked oddly embarrassed. “I don’t know these foods.”

“You don’t like them?”

“No. I…” he swallowed. Something haunted rose in his eyes, but he shook it away. “I don’t know how to eat it. That’s all.”

Catherine looked down at the simple foods, suddenly wanting to laugh. She sat down again, crossing her legs beneath her dress. “You mean, where you come from, they don’t have bread? What do you eat?”

“Plants you don’t have here.” Omar answered. “The Realm is not like your land. It makes everything wild and… different. Nothing like your home, princess.”

Nothing like it? Catherine thought back to her book, studying the continent. Wasn’t the Demon’s Realm a part of their land? Not her father’s kingdom, but nearby, behind great mountains. The preachers said that a part of Hell had risen out of the ground. Yet she knew nothing about the place.

And she didn’t think Omar was really a devil, after all.

“Tell me about it?” she asked eagerly, and the creature studied her warily.

“You said you had to go,” he said. Catherine flinched at the reminder. Yes, she had to go. But she didn’t want to. She didn’t want her maids to give her more work and distractions, so that she would break her promise to her brother again. She didn’t want to go over extra lessons, and talk to her friends about nothing.

“I’ll go back later,” she said. “I want to hear about your home. What is it like there? Why did you leave?”

“... it’s enormous,” Omar said after a long moment of staring at his guest with an expression she couldn’t read. “And dark. The ground is stone, and the sky is endless, there. There aren’t usually clouds to cover it, or trees to block it out. In some places it's incredibly colorful, though. Plants grow up and down the rocks, and along the river bank.” he paused. “I-I only ever saw the river once. It wasn’t very near my tribe, but I passed it… on my way out. It was beautiful there.”

Catherine leaned closer, eager to hear more. “Why did you leave?” she asked again. It sounded like he liked his homeland behind the mountains. “Are there really monsters there, large enough to eat a man in a bite? And serpents with venom to kill a horse with?”

“The animals are as strange as the humans,” Omar chuckled, and Catherine sat up straighter in surprise. “They grow large and fierce, yes. But they can be tamed, and hunted. They’re not like yours, though. I suppose they would look like monsters to your people… is something wrong?”

“There are humans there?” Catherine asked. “I thought…” she’d thought only demons and monsters could dwell in such a place.

Omar stared at her. Suddenly, he looked grim and glanced away. “Yes,” he said.

“What’re they like?”

“Like monsters,” he snapped, harshly, and Catherine drew back. “They’ve changed too, like the animals. You wouldn’t recognize us anymore.”

Us
. Catherine covered her mouth, realizing. Omar was a human. And she’d just told him that she didn’t think he was. “But… but humans don’t…”

“Look like me?” he demanded. “Of course we don’t. Not out here. You would never suffer such monstrous beings to exist as people among you. That much is already clear.”

“But you have wings,” Catherine gasped. He may look almost like a man, but he couldn’t be. Horns, wings, claws… he was a monster. He couldn’t be really like her people.

Omar flinched, glancing over his shoulder, and Catherine realized that she’d mentioned the wings. Out loud. To him.

“Oh! I-I’m sorry!”

He put a clawed hand on his own shoulder, staring for a moment at the place the wings should have been, and turned away.

“I didn’t mean to--”

“It’s fine.” He didn’t sound fine.

“But I shouldn’t have, anyway,” Catherine flushed. “I’m sorry. I just… I didn’t think. I don’t want you to be hurt, I…” She couldn't think of any excuse. If she had been hurt so badly only to be told she was a monster by everyone, she would not have forgiven anyone for it. “I didn’t think you were evil,” she finally offered, and the scarlet man looked up at her again. Catherine hung her head, embarrassed at her own clumsy words. “I didn’t know you were human, but I… you don’t seem evil like they say you are. Or like a monster.”

Omar studied her for a long moment, and the princess’s face grew hot with embarrassment. Perhaps she should just leave after all. Now he wouldn’t want her to come back again.

“My sister’s name is Hala.”

Catherine peered up through her hair, eyes wide. “Hala?”

“She was beautiful,” Omar said, smiling wistfully. “Red skinned like me, but without wings. Her horns are small-- sometimes the other girls teased her for that. But she made the most precious little chains to wear on them, with ornaments to look like flowers hanging from them into her face. I always liked that one: it showed what a craftmaster she was, even at her age.

“She was wearing it the day I left.” He swallowed, closing his eyes, and Catherine brushed her hair out of her face, waiting to hear more. “It was the day of her marriage,” Omar continued softly. “She was so happy, I almost didn’t want to punch her husband for good measure. It helped that he was my closest friend. I don’t think… we’d ever been more thrilled than that morning.”

Catherine nodded, trying to imagine what he said. Two red people, humans but so strange, standing together with Omar on the side and a priest… did they have priests? She didn’t know. But if he was so happy… why leave?

“That was when everything fell apart,” Omar whispered, and Catherine let out a little gasp despite herself, a shadow falling over her imagination.

“What happened? Did a monster attack you?”

“Yes,” Omar spat. “The king did, anyway. Or…” he took a breath and opened his eyes. “No. My people have a king, Princess. A powerful king, too great to disobey. My tribe would have been wiped out if they refused him anything. He liked to come without warning: he’d done it before, even to a smaller tribe like mine. And he came then, during the marriage. He thought that was hilarious, for some reason, and said… he said Hala pleased him. She was a beautiful girl.” Omar’s claws were fists, and his gaze, directed at the metal floor of his cage, was a fierce glare. “He said she would be one of his wives instead. There was nothing we could do. She… she had to go with him. And I couldn’t bear to watch her leave without even trying, even if I knew I couldn’t save her.” He shook his head. “So I hit him. Just once, as hard as I could. I sent him sprawling and told him what I thought of him.”

Catherine covered her gaping mouth with both hands. “You struck your king?” she squeaked in horror.

“I did.” Omar glanced up at her and she recognized the expression in his eyes from before-- from the first time she saw him, when the guard grabbed his wing and he’d attacked. Only now she saw he wasn’t just angry. He was resigned too. He knew he couldn’t change anything: not to get away from the guards who held him and tore his wings away, and not to save the sister his king had taken away from him in his home. “I hit him," he said. "And by The Throne, I know I should have known better. But in the moment I didn't care. I just wanted to hurt him for… she didn’t do anything to deserve it.”

“Did he kill everyone?” Catherine asked softly.

“No. He asked if I’d finished making a fool of myself, then just tossed me back.” Omar shook his head. “He didn’t even use his magic on me. Like I wasn’t worth it. He said I was banished then: if he caught me in The Realm he’d kill me… and my sister. My tribe would be destroyed too; I didn’t have any choice. So I left. It was still a death sentence: we all knew that. The Meiren can’t survive long in the Outside, with your people.” He looked down at the bandages on his chest. “Especially not alone,” he added softly. “I… I didn’t think it would take so long though. To die out here. I thought those warriors would kill me, but they just brought me here. I didn’t fight them because they vowed to leave my wings.” He grimaced. “I wanted to die intact, at least. Your king didn’t care for their vow, so in the end… even that meant nothing. I’m as helpless here as I was that day.”

… Catherine swallowed hard. She wanted to tell him he wouldn't die, but the whispered words of his fate had driven her out here because she believed them. “I… I wish you could go home,” she said.

“I don’t,” Omar replied. “Not unless I could see her. Hala… she’s a princess now. One of the king’s wives. That’s why I… I cared when you came. The guards here, and the king, they want me to be a beast. To entertain them. But that’s not your fault. You can’t choose your king, anymore than Hala did.”

No, she couldn’t. Right now, Catherine wished she had any father but the Beast Tamer King. “But what about the river?” she asked. “And the rocks and the beautiful plants?”

“None of that would matter,” Omar said. “Even if he let me return, and I could get out of here, I’d never be allowed near my sister again. I couldn’t bear to live so near and know she was out of reach… I’m better off in the Outside.”

“You’re in a cage!” Catherine protested.

“Not for much longer.” Omar sighed. “Princess, my wounds haven’t healed from losing my wings. They beat me to force me to play monster for them, and they hardly feed me. I haven’t seen the sky in… it feels like moons must have come and gone since I was locked in here. I thought I’d go mad before I left the world, with no one to even talk with, and nothing to do. I am dying. And I’d rather die at the hands of enemies than my own people.”

But he was in a cage. A man, kneeling behind bars, cast out from his people and treated like a beast. The food Catherine brought him was still untouched, even though he was hungry. He shivered with cold even though she’d given him her cloak before-- not just neglected, but purposefully tormented and beaten for entertainment. Even if his king had terrible powers, could he kill in a way more horrible than this?

“You should go, princess,” Omar said. “It’s probably late. You said you had to go earlier…”

“You should eat,” she shot back, a frustration rising in her chest and threatening to bring her to sudden tears. She’d been calling this man a monster all this time. This man who had defended his sister even in the face of death, and walked to his own death sentence beyond his realm; been hurt and betrayed and mistreated by her own people. Who’d lost his freedom and his wings just for setting foot in their world. “Why don’t you eat?”

Omar drew back. “I… I don’t know the food.”

“So? It’s good! Eat it!”

He shook his head. “Not… no. Not while you’re here, princess.”

She sniffed, a tear sliding down her face. “Why not? I brought it to you. The guards might take it away if I go!”

That seemed to startle him, and he grew grim. “They… might,” he agreed miserably. “Great Throne, that’s just like them. But… I…” He looked at the food and his stomach growled loudly.

“Eat it,” Catherine urged.

“I’ll look like an idiot,” Omar murmured. The princess blinked at him.

“You’re in a cage.” He was worried about looking foolish?

Omar shot her an exasperated look. “They make me eat,” he growled. “To entertain them. Eat like an animal. Even when they’re not… it’s hard to eat now. I look like a beast, even to myself.” his gaze dropped. “Even when I’m not acting for them. That’s the worst thing, I… I can’t separate it… anymore.”

Guilt rose in Catherine’s throat like bile.

“You always come at night,” he went on. “So you haven’t watched that. I don’t… want you to see. It’s disgusting.”

She nodded dumbly and stood up. “I’ll go,” she said. “You can eat it then. Fast. And I… I’ll come back soon, with more. And… I…” She wanted to say she’d save him. She wanted to heal his wounds.

She couldn’t. She didn’t know how, or if it could be done. “I’ll go,” she finished, and fled.

Other entries by Genevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

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About Genevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

Genevieve is an aspiring author who has been dabbling in the arts of storytelling and writing for almost as long as she remembers. She writes mostly in the fantasy genre, and has received an Honorable Mention in the 'Writer's of the Future' contest for her short story 'A Faerie's Will'.

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